Monday, May 31, 2010

Skin cancer: Why it’s Important to Catch this Common Disease Early

This week, we've used the blog to talk about Vitamin D and Protecting Your Skin . Today we tackle skin cancer.

It's beautiful and sunny today in Baltimore, but remember to put on your sunscreen before heading outdoors. About one million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. every year, and one in 5 Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer at some point in his or her lifetime. Some of the risk factors for skin cancer include having a fair complexion (especially with red or blond hair), a blistering sunburn as a child or teenager, exposure to radiation – including light from tanning beds, and certain medical conditions that weaken the immune system.

In a Lunch and Learn session at the Alvin & Lois Lapidus Cancer Institute last week, Sean T. Gunning, M.D., talked about the three forms of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and malignant melanoma. Basal cell, which is the most common skin cancer, typically affects the head and neck and is primarily caused by sunburn. It can look like a spot that is shiny, with a rolled border that may turn into an ulcer or a red scaly spot. If you have a sore or pimple that doesn’t heal after 4 to 6 weeks, you should see your doctor as it could be basal cell skin cancer.

Squamous cell skin cancer forms after chronic sun exposure. Patients who have received a kidney transplant are especially at risk. This type of skin cancer can metastasize and spread to other parts of the body, making it very dangerous.

Finally, malignant melanoma is the least common form of skin cancer, making up only about 5 percent of cases. However, it is the most deadly. People with light complexions, with one or more blistering sunburns before age 18 and a large number of moles are particularly susceptible. Moles should be checked against the ABCDs:
  • Asymmetrical – Is the mole an odd shape with sides that don’t match the other?
  • Border – Does the mole lack a defined border?
  • Color – Is the color the same throughout the mole, or are there patches of brown, black, white, red or blue?
  • Diameter – Is the mole larger than ¼” in diameter (about the size of a pencil eraser)?
If the answer to one or more of these questions is “yes,” go see your doctor.

If skin cancer metastasizes (spreads to other organs), it can be life-threatening. Therefore, early detection is important. Skin cancer screenings will be held at Northwest Hospital on June 14 and on June 28 at Sinai Hospital. To sign up for one of these free screenings, call 410-601-9355.

-Holly Hosler

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